A High Price for a Flawed Design

In addition to my phone, I use a Garmin zūmo 396 LMT-S for navigation. I got it for my motorcycle long before I started the #vanlife, but it has proven extremely useful for the van as well. Since it stores its maps in memory, I can plot a course when I have no data coverage on my phone. It’s great to have a backup navigation device when exploring unknown territory. It also has features specifically useful to motorcycles, like the ability to download pre-planned routes to follow, as well as “Garmin Adventurous Routing” — or, as one friend calls it, “squiggle roads,” which are the most fun on a bike.

Unfortunately, it has a profound flaw that has reared its ugly head at me: the power connection. In the van, it runs off the same mini-USB port I use to plug it into my computer, so that’s no problem. The special bracket on my bike, though, uses a proprietary power hookup that connects automatically when clipping the unit in and disconnects when you remove it. It’s very convenient, but it wears out after a year or two.

Note that I’m only talking about the electrical connection. The bracket itself works great. It holds the GPS securely, even off-road, yet it just clicks into place and releases with the press of a button. Power comes through a wiring harness. One end connects to the motorcycle battery. An in-line voltage regulator converts its power to whatever the GPS takes. The other end attaches to the bracket, where a pair of spring-loaded contacts touch matching contacts on the back of the GPS itself. And that’s the problem.

Many people in the New England Riders group on Facebook have reported that these contacts stop making contact after only a year or two. The springs are fairly weak and lose their springiness after a short time. I, too, have suffered from this issue.

Knowing about this weak point, I’ve taken good care of it. I’ve removed the GPS from the cradle when not in use, partly for security (the bike used to be outside at all times), and partly to give the weak springs a rest from pressing against the power contacts unless I was actually using it. I’ve always put the little rubber cover over the contacts when not in use to keep dust and rain out. My best efforts counted for nothing, though, when it came to avoiding this design flaw.

For months, I’ve used my soldering iron to drip solder onto the ends of the contacts to extend them so they connect with the GPS. This works for a while, but solder isn’t meant to handle physical connections, only electrical ones, and it wears away after a while. Every few weeks, I have to heat up and rework these connections, hopefully without damaging anything else.

A few days ago I took a 170-mile trip out to the Oregon coast and back, riding roads I’ve never traveled or even seen before. Partway through, the power connection started acting up. The GPS has a small built-in battery but turns off automatically after a few seconds when disconnected from external power. I’ve found no way to change this. That means it can randomly shut off while I’m watching the road, causing me to miss turns and get lost. If I have my Bluetooth headset connected it beeps to warn me of this. Then I can wiggle it and get power back, or at least cancel the auto-shutoff, but the constant beeps every time it loses power get extremely annoying. Plus, it’s extremely distracting from the actual riding.

This most recent experience, plus having my friend’s barn to work on the bike, convinced me to bite the bullet and replace the harness. It was $50 on Amazon. $50!!! For only some wire, a small voltage regulator circuit, and a flawed connector to the GPS. The components themselves can’t cost more than $5, if that. I’ll probably get another year or two out of it before, once again, the springs lose their spring and I have the same problem all over again, and have to drop yet another $50 on an overpriced wiring harness. That’s a good chunk of the way toward buying an entirely new GPS, preferably one with a better power connection. But I shouldn’t have to replace my GPS just to fix a power connection problem, especially at Garmin’s prices. I’m extremely happy with the other 99% of this system. It’s really too bad that two tiny springs that should be a little bit beefier have spoiled my experience with it so much.

What’s done is done. I’ve replaced the harness. The power connection works perfectly, as it should (especially for that price). I’ll have the security and reliability of knowing the GPS won’t randomly shut off on me while exploring parts unknown in the middle of nowhere. It’s how it should work in the first place. It shouldn’t take an overpriced wiring harness that should be considered a regular wear item to have that.

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